Australian women could soon have the right to serve in frontline combat roles, according to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Defence Minister Stephen Smith.
“I think it’s right that men and women should have an equal right to fight and die for their country,” Gillard told reporters.
At the moment, Australian women are allowed to serve in 93% of positions in the military but are excluded from the most dangerous forms of combat, The Australian reports. For instance, they are not allowed to serve in the special forces, rifle companies or as fighter pilots.
Smith yesterday said that it was very likely women would soon be able to serve on the front line, saying that positions should not be determined by sex but by physical and mental capacity. “What you do in the forces should be determined by your physical and intellectual capability or capacity, not simply on the basis of sex or gender. It opens up all of the leadership roles for women in defence — and that’s an unambiguously good thing.”
One of the things that have prompted the rethink is a series of reviews into the treatment of women after the emergence of a sex scandal involving a young female cadet at an elite military academy, AFP reports. The woman was filmed by her male colleague while having sex and the episode streamed live to other cadets through Skype. The woman went to the media and it triggered a series of fresh complaints about sexual misconduct within the military stretching back decades.
Several countries, including Israel, New Zealand and Canada, already allow women in some front-line positions. If Australia goes ahead with the move, it will become the fourth country in the world to allow women a frontline combat role.
“A few years ago I heard [former defence chief General] Peter Cosgrove say that men and women should have an equal right to fight and die for their country,” Gillard said. “I think he’s right about that and I think it’s a good turn of phrase. It puts the choice very starkly.”
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, who is responsible for reviewing how women are treated at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), said women fighting alongside men would be “very symbolic”.
“It will send a strong message that men and women will have equality in terms of opportunity for jobs,” she told reporters.
Over the past three years, the Australian Defence Force has been developing a set of physiological requirements for women to serve in frontline roles that are likely to involve close in combat and hard physical activity. Smith says this process will be fast-tracked as the government wants all Australian Defence Force jobs available to females. Most of the positions closed to women are in the Australian Army – women currently serve aboard submarines, unlike in the UK and US.
However, some are opposed to women putting their lives on the line. The Australia Defence Association think-tank, for instance, said it was not realistic. “The nature of war doesn’t change just because some feminists kick up a fuss,” the spokesman Neil James told ABC radio.
“Simple commonsense tells you that if you put women in some jobs where you directly fight men, enemy men, one-on-one in a physical confrontation for a continuous period, then we are likely to suffer more female casualties than male casualties.”
Don Barnby, a Special Air Services Vietnam veteran said he had no objection to women serving in frontline combat units. However, he added that, “the public is quite used to men coming back in body bags from wars but I think public opinion would change if a number of women started coming back in body bags. I don’t think the public is ready for it.”
“We actually thought seriously about it 10 years ago and the one question I can recall concerning people in those days was if you made all of the positions available you had to run a competency benchmark,” said former acting defence chief Peter Abigail, now head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “The only question about that was how many girls would, one, be interested and, two, meet the benchmarks and then if you ended up with a unit with only a few girls in it, what difficulties might that present.”